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Director of Education and Public Engagement Jason Porter leads students in a discussion inside the exhibit Race Are We So Different?

School in the Park (SITP) is a longstanding, innovative program that takes students from nearby Rosa Parks Elementary School and Woodrow Wilson Middle School out of their normal classroom settings and into the museums and cultural institutions of Balboa Park. For a week at a time, these students have the chance to connect their classroom learning to a hosting institution’s collections and exhibits, resulting in a fun and unique educational experience.

As one of nine institutions that SITP partners with, the Museum of Man was excited to host 72 sixth-grade students from Wilson Middle School this year to learn and engage with the exhibit Race: Are We So Different? Led by Education and Public Engagement Associate Sydney Garcia, these sixth-graders learned the historical and sociological constructs of race and racism, the real science behind why people look different from each other, and how race plays a role in our daily lives. Along with studying these topics, students also worked heavily with their peers, explored “out of neighborhood” spaces with new information, and created connections between the activities they participated in and their own lives.

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The graffiti art murals on display at Woodrow Wilson Middle School.

The examination of race in this year’s program culminated in a memorable final project where each sixth-grade class created an eye-catching graffiti art mural to be hung up at their school. Students developed a campaign slogan for each mural like “Don’t be a fool, racism isn’t cool,” and incorporated words like “justice,” “stop bullying,” and “diversity” to raise awareness about racism on their campus and to encourage each other to be upstanders—people who speak out when they see something wrong or unjust.

We talked to Yen Lam, a sixth-grad student at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, about the program.

Question: What did you think of SITP? How is your learning at school different from learning at the Museum of Man?

Yen Lam: Through the program I get to see real artifacts and objects. In school, we just see what we’re learning using a textbook. Here at the Museum, I get a different kind of experience when it comes to absorbing information. For example, it was new for me to see real busts from the Museum’s collection while staff members gave us background information about them. Based on the busts’ features, I could more easily analyze why the person that the bust represented got categorized the way they did. It was fascinating just seeing such old artifacts up close.

Question: What was the most impactful lesson or activity that you completed in the program?

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Yen Lam (on right) fills the role of census taker during an activity.

Yen Lam: Hmmm…. it would have to be the activity where two students were assigned as census takers for the class. As one of the census takers, I had to look at my classmates and try to give them a racial category based off their appearance. It was particularly hard “labeling” my friend Kathy. For the year 1950, I was forced to assign her as Chinese even though I know she is Vietnamese. In 1950, Vietnamese as a racial category did not exist.

Question: What stood out to you about the graffiti final project?

Yen Lam: Graffiti is traditionally seen as vandalism, but through this project, graffiti is seen as a work of art. It’s even inspirational. Not only is this work meaningful through our slogans and short phrases, but it’s also being used to spread awareness about a topic that isn’t obvious. In class we barely touch on the topic of race. I think my teacher has just mentioned it once in passing. By hanging up our mural in a place where a lot of students pass by, we hope that it can discourage viewers from bullying others because of their race.

Question: Have you experienced racism or stereotyping in your own life? If yes, how? Do you think what you learned this week will help you face it better if you experienced it again?

Yen Lam: Since I am Asian, there are characteristics that have been associated with me like that I love math, a kind of whiz or something. It bothers me that stereotypes are easily started, spread around, and come back to me through people that I later encounter. I mean, I’m not bad at the subject, but I feel it’s not ok to characterize people without their permission. After this program, I understand this even more. Stereotypes can be ignored, which is usually what I try to do, but now if I were faced with one that cannot be easily brushed off, I have answers and strategies to deal with it.

Learn more about School in the Park.